In Brig, the cradle of distance studying, e-learning is changing into huge

Not so long ago, you could see a herd of black noses grazing at the end of Schinerstrasse. These Wallachian sheep with curly wool and dark muzzles have given way to an army of drills that are relentlessly vibrating to complete a building that is still equipped with scaffolding: the new Brig campus, which is just rising from the ground, which would be a stone’s throw away. from the station. A six-storey house with a glazed and refined line, which after two and a half years of work will welcome its owners within a few weeks: UniDistance and Haute Ecole specialized in distance education (FFHS).

Everything is in names: since its inception in this corner of Haut-Valais, in 1994 and 1998, these two institutions have offered training to those who cannot attend the benches of classical faculties. First, university studies in law, economics, psychology or even history; on the other, full-time bachelor’s and master’s degrees in IT, engineering, healthcare and early construction. Two different entities with the same mission: to offer flexible education that allows you to combine study and professional activity, family life or even high-level sports. “The concept was born in 19th century London with distance training of British civil servants by post,” explains Marc Bors, director of UniDistance. Almost thirty years ago, the researcher had the idea to import a method here for people living in valleys and peaks.

Since then, the centers have expanded, correspondence sheets have been replaced by e-learning – and the method is on the rise: in 2021, UniDistance had almost 2,500 students (speaking French, German and English), a record and regularly opens new faculties such as as in math last year. As a result, there are currently more first years in pure mathematics than at the University of Zurich, says director Marc Bors. “But I don’t eat their piece of the cake, I enlarge the cake by giving the opportunity to study to those who didn’t!” Society has changed: training continues, it changes form. For example, there are many moms in our psychology courses. Average age of recruits? 38 years.

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Researchers in the basement

It is true that the pandemic has also helped to increase enrollment, but above all it has highlighted the delays in traditional digital universities. “Shooting a talking head is pedagogically uninteresting: you have to use distance learning differently,” emphasizes Marc Bors. Specifically, it is about encouraging student participation through interactive video exercises and, if hygienic conditions allow, face-to-face group meetings that complement virtual learning.

Hybrid education, or BlendedLearning, has also adopted FFHS, which relies on a ratio of 80% online and 20% on the spot. “People-to-people exchanges are very important, and networking students and professors contributes to the success of studies that are even more exciting,” says Yvonne Ganz, Head of Real Estate at FFHS. Due to these meetings, two classrooms were planned on the first floor of the campus, although most of the courses take place in large branches in Bern or Zurich – where FFHS has also just opened a new center. , Gleisarena. “If our plant was originally created for those who could not get to the cities to study, today the logic is reversed: the cities and centers located in the immediate vicinity of the stations are hotspots where most of our students live, ”explains Yvonne Ganz.

Therefore, from next month, Briguish’s headquarters will be primarily the administrative services of two institutions, which are growing and require more and more space. But also labs in the basement, where their teams of researchers will, among other things, study cognitive psychology and the contribution of new technologies to the field of learning – since 2017, the FFHS has a UNESCO chair on the subject.

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The cornerstone in the 17th century

Even without crowds of students, the building had to cultivate the atmosphere of the campus, explains architect Steffen Sperle. The man, to whom we also owe the ultra-design elephant park at the Zurich Zoo, will take us through large, bright spaces arranged around a circular balustrade. The choice of raw materials (concrete on the floor, visible insulation on the ceiling) gives the place a “more relaxed spirit”. An open, competent and innovative image is “important for a publicly supported institution,” notes Yvonne Ganz.

Because the campus is also a showcase for UniDistance and FFHS. “We suffer a bit from this virtual identity … We needed a place where we could present ourselves to the public, which symbolizes the existence of our two institutions,” continues Marc Bors.

Nothing could be more logical if it is at the foot of Simplon: historically, Brig has a long teaching tradition. It was already in the 17th century, when the Valais baron and patron Kaspar Stockalper established a convent of Ursuline sisters from the Catholic order, which mainly supported the education of young girls, and then supported the opening of the Spiritus high school. the gymnasium, the church rectory, the sports school and the dormitory are still grouped together today – which was run for eight years by Michael Zurwerra, head of the FFHS. “Stockalper has laid the foundation stone for our connection to education,” said Mayor Mathias Bellwald. Brig is a training metropolis in Upper Valais and this new headquarters represents an important development. ”This will not stop there: UniDistance is growing by 10% a year, Marc Bors recalls before slipping:“ In fact, the building will soon be too small! ”

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